Even if you are practicing for years to learn Jazz then you may still not see a lot of progress, and there is a real chance that a lot of the time you spend working on learning to play Jazz is a complete waste of time. This is probably because you don’t take a step back and look critically at how you play and what you are practicing.
It doesn’t matter if you are just starting out or if you already have experience playing and a repertoire of songs you gig with. You need to get this right to get as much as possible out of your practice time and keep you progressing.
There are a series of questions that you can ask yourself about your practice and your playing that will help you determine if you need to change something, let’s take a look at the first one:
Do You Know What You Want To Improve?
This seems simple you are probably thinking “what do you mean? I want to get better at Jazz guitar” But that is nowhere near specific enough! You want to be very precise with what you want to improve.
Think of it like this: If you want to get better at using arpeggios in your solos then It is easy to find some exercises so you can play arpeggios, check out some examples and start writing some licks with the arpeggios.
You could summarize the process like this:
- Practice Arpeggios
- Check Out Examples
- Write Licks With Arpeggios
That all seems obvious, but which exercises will make you “Better at Jazz Guitar” That doesn’t tell you what to practice, so essentially you want to keep digging into what you want to improve until you can figure out exercises that will help you grow that skill.
But before you lose yourself in only doing exercises that are specific to one skill then there is something else you need to ask yourself.
What Are You Learning From Your Practice?
The previous question was there to make sure that you understand your playing and how to focus on getting better, but it is as important to look at what you are practicing and then be able to recognize what you are learning from each of the activities you do.
Let me go over a basic example and then one of the most important exercises you should work on::
Let’s say that you are practicing diatonic triads in a major scale.
An exercise like that is helping you develop:
So there are many things that you will work on within a single exercise. This is also what justifies why you should be spending a large part of your practice time playing music, which is probably the most important exercise to work on.
Without being specific then the goal is “I want to get better at Jazz guitar” and what is “Jazz Guitar” That is playing songs and improvising over the chord progression, so even if that is not a very specific set of skills, then if you want to be better at that then you practice doing that.
There are many essential things that you improve when doing this:
- More Than Playing The Right Notes
- How To Build an Interesting Solo
- All Types of Techniques
- Using and Developing Your Fretboard Overview
- Create A Sound That Is How YOU Solo On a Song
You need to do more than just play the right notes
You want to make the notes and arpeggios into phrases, not just hit the chord changes and target notes.
You learn How To Build an interesting solo
A solo is like a story and has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You also need to make sure that phrases fit together and don’t sound like random copy/pasting of unrelated licks.
All Types of Techniques
Playing a solo you will probably use most of the techniques in your vocabulary, and it is here you can check if you really have the technique under control.
Using and Developing Your Fretboard Overview
When you are improvising a solo you are using and developing your fretboard overview finding all the things you play and a way to get all of that to come together in phrases.
Improvising is also where you create a sound that is how YOU solo on a song
Which is really just trying to play the things that you want to play in a solo and make it a whole piece of music.
But there is more to it than just what to practice, you also need to evaluate if the way you are practicing is actually getting you anywhere.
Are You Getting Better?
Once you have come up with exercises that help you develop the skill that you want to improve then you also need to keep track and see if you are actually getting any better.
You may think that this will be easy to spot, but that is actually not always the case. A lot of things that you work on can be stuff that takes months to get into your playing, again this can be about technique but it can certainly also be about getting new melodies into your ears and then out in your solos.
Recording your practice can be extremely useful for this, and taking notes or having a list to keep track of is also making things a lot easier. For example, I have been working on using octave displacement licks and getting that to sit better in my playing, so that is something I both consciously try to use but also try to evaluate if I listen to a recording of one of my solos: “can I play them? do they sit right in the line? Is that how I want it to sound?”
If you don’t keep track of these things then maybe you are not getting anywhere with what you are practicing. And sometimes you will get there faster if you use other types of exercises or changed the focus of what you are practicing. Otherwise, you are stuck doing exercises that are not helping you get any better and that is probably not what you are hoping to do.
I find that the next 2 questions are overlooked when it comes to finding the right types of exercises, and that is a pity because they really do help make it easier to find the things that will improve your playing.
Is This A Practical Exercise For Your Playing?
Sometimes you lose something in translating a goal into an exercise, and that can make the exercise almost useless.
A common example is how practicing scales is not always helping you play better lines. If you look at solo phrases then they are rarely a lot of scales, in Jazz anyway,
and there are other things that you want to learn as well or probably even focus more on so that you are building a vocabulary of things to play in your solos, and in this case, your solo should not just be you running up and down the scale so you want to learn some diatonic arpeggios or diatonic triads.
Another thing that I see people waste a lot of time on is not planning the process of learning well enough and forgetting what may be the most important part of the goal.
Do You Know How To Use This?
Of course, you are choosing exercises based on what you want to learn and have in your playing. This is great for motivation and usually just makes it more fun to practice, but you do need to watch out that you also know where you are going with it.
I hear this mostly from students that are working on things like the altered scale
or Barry Harris 6th diminished stuff. Learning the scale and the exercises is maybe not easy, but still something you can work on and it will be ok. The problems start when you don’t have any way of using it. You don’t know any examples of altered licks and don’t really know what to do with that scale.
That is why you also want to ask yourself: “Do You Know How To Use This”. Sometimes that is easy: If you are working on arpeggios or triads and you can probably think of some licks with triads that you can use as a blueprint for making your own vocabulary and in that way get things into your playing, but without something like that, some practical references to how this is put to use in real music then that can get pretty tricky and you may find that you are wasting practice time working on that topic.
Not Getting Caught Up In Myths
Being aware of what you are learning and what you want to learn is incredibly important. It is also important to not get fooled by some weird myth that you hear, and there are a few common ones floating around about learning Jazz or even music in general. Stuff like this can really slow you down and let you waste a lot of time chasing something that is actually wrong. If you want to avoid these then check out this video that discusses 5 of them so that you have a clear idea about where you are and what you should be working on.
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